Holly Combs, a star of the bewitched cable TV show "Charmed," is breathily confiding to me over the phone about her 17 pets. I learn that her two rabbits are named Jezebel and Jesse and that, of her many treasured critters, "only four of them actually live indoors, the two cats and the two bunnies." Girlish and giggly in her one-minute recorded monologue, she reveals such thunderstruck banalities as "my pets have taken over my life!" Then, the phone abruptly goes dead.
For the privilege of glimpsing into the private zoo of a second-rate TV star, I have just paid 75 cents, and I've become the 119th person to do so. Actually, I haven't paid anything, because I am still in the five-minute free trial period at Keen.com, a site where anyone can offer themselves up as a self-appointed authority on virtually any topic, and ask to be paid for it.
"The fact that the person is an expert or not an expert is really irrelevant," explains Keen.com CEO Karl Jacob. "It's just that the other person knows a little more than you do." Some of the topics that the 40,000 "Keenspeakers" -- Combs among them -- peddle advice and insights on include "self help for premature ejaculation," "value of old, historic newspapers, 1650 through 1999" and the utterly cryptic "OJ Simpson ... not a jew."
If you're wondering if you can pick the brain of the clever CEO who raised $67 million to fund this smorgasbord, the answer is -- yes, of course. You can reach CEO Karl Jacob on Keen.com. Alas, so far, he's had no callers. But three people have called a one-minute canned recording titled "How to start your own business!!!" the listing for which sounds a lot like spam: "I will send you a list of reports I have for free and you pick the report that you want!" No need to feel unpopular, though. A woman calling herself "Sister Mary," who advertises her services in the "business planning" category as: "Psychic, doyou want to know about your bizz?" hasn't received any calls either.
Keen.com has enjoyed gobs of positive press coverage since it launched in November, not the least of it because the company has raised a total of $67 million from name venture capital firms like Benchmark Capital, Paul Allen's Vulcan Ventures and Integral Capital Partners, as well as institutional investors like eBay, Microsoft and Inktomi. It even made Fortune magazine's "Cool Companies 2000" list.
All this fawning coverage waxes on about what you could do with Keen.com -- get new recipes, tips for fixing your computer, help with your business plan. And the site itself describes what's offered there this way: "People who can answer questions on topics ranging from computers to personal advice to taxes can make money by creating a description of their knowledge and setting a per minute fee." "Personal advice" is perhaps purposefully vague, but neither the site nor its innumerable chroniclers bother to mention what members of this "live answer community" seem to be actually doing with it -- namely divining the future with the help of psychics, finding phone sex partners, checking horoscopes and listening to tape recorded messages of TV celebs talking about themselves. Sixty-seven million bucks for this?
I first learned about the seemingly boundless wisdom for sale that is Keen.com from an ad looming from the side of a San Francisco bus, where a smiling, clean-cut man and woman chat amiably on the phone alongside the site's URL and the slogan "your live answer community."
Not another expert advice site, I thought. Surely, you've heard by now about the dozens of dot-coms that have cropped up in the last year or so all aspiring to do for the information trapped in your noggin what eBay did for the junk piled in your garage -- unload it on someone else, for a price. There's Exp.com and @skme.com, ExpertCentral and InfoRocket -- the list of interchangeable sounding names goes on and on.
One of the great things about the Net, since the early Usenet days, of course, is that relative strangers devote a remarkable amount of energy to answering each other's questions about virtually anything, and they do it free of charge. But these expert sites contend, with some reason, that it's too hard and too inefficient for most people to find credible information this way, and pledge to make the whole process easier, providing advice either by e-mail, chat or sometimes over the phone.
Some, like Exp.com, emphasize business services and stress their rigorous verification of experts' credentials. Others, like Askme.com, offer free advice but plan to make money as sellers of "peer-to-peer" infrastructure services to other sites. On Keen.com, you can find an "HR Pro," with verified credentials -- and a "Registered Nurse" with no credentials listed. Seemingly, you or I could declare ourselves nuclear physicists and offer answers about subjects we've studied in Cold War potboilers.
Keen.com is different from the pack, because more than 80 percent of the buying and selling of "answers" on this site takes place through that most old-fashioned piece of technology -- the telephone. Next to the listing for any of the site's tens of thousands of pundits for hire, just click on the link that says "call now." Then, Keen.com, acting like an old-fashioned telephone operator, connects you and your advisor. Startlingly, your phone rings just seconds later and the meter starts running, for anywhere between 5 cents and $10 a minute, without any phone numbers being exchanged. (A "listen now" button accompanies recorded messages like Combs' pet riff, and if you click it, your phone will ring and play your selection.)
It makes Keen.com something like a giant Internet directory of 900 and 976 services -- but instead of providing phone numbers so you can call any time you like, it connects you directly, so you have to go back to Keen to call again.
Many Keen.com advice hawkers promote their expertise on such white-bread subjects as "buying a used car," "everything Mac" and "houseplant survival tips" -- just like on every other expert site. But many of the most popular topics are the same ones traditional 900 numbers cater to: psychics, astrology and the picking the brain of a "SEXXY 21 YEAR OLD LOOKING FOR STEAMING HOT FUN," not to forget the self-confessional recordings of 20-something TV celebrities.
The site reveals exactly how many calls have been placed to each advice-giver, how many each of them has actually answered and what cumulative rating their callers have given them. Jeannie4569, who is Keen.com's most popular psychic, has received 1,763 calls from folks seeking to tap into her self-professed abilities as a "master intuitive."
I searched in vain to find anyone who takes nearly as many calls as she does through the Keen.com site, where many of the advisors have, as of yet, like Jacob, received no calls at all. A two-minute recording titled "sweet redhead wants to read you a story ... prt 1" in the "Women Seeking Men" category got 202 calls at 75 cents a minute. And a guy calling himself TheLoneGunman, who offers "sound Internet biz advice" and claims to have worked for "most of the major players in the Internet game," has received just two calls, which sounds pretty weak, until you realize that he's the most popular of all 159 advisors listed in the "entrepreneurship" category.
Don't feel sorry for the two callers who paid 50 cents a minute to talk to the get-rich-quick schemer offering to reveal the secret to "50 percent investment return per month" in the "investment opportunities" category, making it the second most popular listing in that area. They may well have consulted a very credible psychic first.
Jacob, the CEO, says that the most popular advisors in the "Personal Advice," "Business and Personal Finance" and "Computing and Internet" categories make "over $1,000 a week." With the exception of "Personal Advice," where the psychics congregate, it's hard to see from looking at the site how this could be the case. The most popular advisor about computers offers a one-minute recording of "Windows Tip of the Day by Doctor Geek" for 75 cents a minute, and has received a grand total of 50 calls. A tax expert, who charges $2.50 a minute, has received 42 calls.
Jacob calls Keen.com "a totally free market." That it surely is. He explains the large number of psychics and sex-chat purveyors offering their services on the site by the fact that 900-number operators are quickly migrating their businesses there; Keen takes a 30 percent cut of whatever fee you charge per minute for your services, while a traditional 900-number operator takes as much as 70 percent. And the overwhelming popularity of those somewhat seedy 900-number style categories? Well, they're what people are used to paying for on the phone.
"It's just like eBay," he says. "When they started out they were selling Pez dispensers. A couple of categories catch on and then those users go on to other categories. Say my friend got an answer about their horoscope. I'd learn that I could ask tax questions in the same place."
Maybe. But who would think to pay for start-up advice from a site that also offers get-rich-quick schemes? Why would you trust a tax expert whom you found on a site populated by psychics? Or a psychic who frequented the same sites as a tax expert, for that matter?
Jacob disagrees: "I'll go back to the example of eBay again. People buy cars for $50,000 and Beanie Babies for $10 from them. It's the same thing that drives people to go shop at Costco or Wal-Mart where they get relatively low quality items sitting right next to relatively high quality." But the value of advice is much more slippery than the value of a tangible commodity, like a Pez dispenser. It's all about who you choose to trust.
Venture capitalist Roger McNamee of Integral Capital Partners, a key investor in Keen, explains it this way: Keen.com acts "a lot like a phone company." Because it connects people who want to talk and essentially sells them long-distance airtime. "We're having a conversation on the phone, but you don't think any less of the phone company because people are using it for dating or for psychics," he reasons. In this scenario, Keen.com's Web site is then like the phone book -- you know that the florist on page 212 has no bearing on the plumber on page 818. But that doesn't explain why no one is calling the Keen.com version of the plumber, and seemingly everyone is flocking to its phone equivalent of strip clubs.
"It's astonishing how many different ways people use it," enthuses McNamee. "And the great thing is the company doesn't have to make any choices about how this platform will be used. It has to make this a great platform and enable people to do whatever they want to do. The coolest technology businesses always work this way." So, in the end, it doesn't matter to Keen.com's business what people choose to use it to talk about, as long as they stay on the line and call back often.
McNamee even suggests that savvy callers might start to use it as a cheap substitute for long-distance phone calls. Say I list myself in some obscure category -- charging 5 cents a minute for "answers" about something as utterly useless as preparations for the big Y2K fallout. Surely, no one would call. Then, my mom could use Keen.com to call me in California from Texas for the 5-cent rate anytime. Of course, she'd be charged for the call. Now, there's an "answer" I'd like to sell. Maybe the ultimate value of Keen.com will be in connecting you to the people you already trust -- the people you already know.